Italian artist Adelita Husni-Bey produces part documentary, part artistic films which delve into social issues, expectations that we place on each other based on certain perceptions which then become constructs that are sometimes questionable.
After The Finish Line (2011) is a film about a group of US teenagers who each practice a sport competitively, and their thoughts and feelings about the life that they live and the toll practicing the sport takes on them.
One of the girl’s recollection of the initial joys of playing the sport and the successes gained in being pushed to be ‘the best’, is immediately tempered by her revelation that it caused her to ‘crashdown and break’. That the amount of dedication and striving to be the best was simply unsustainable.
As others in the group reveal the kinds of pressure placed upon them by family, coaches and neighbours, who are often referred to as ‘like..everybody’, the film slowly reveals that this problem, the requirement to ‘win’ or ‘succeed’ is pervasive.
As the camera depicts pumped up, physically fit bodies, somewhat reminiscent of the scene when Clark Kent first puts on his Superman outfit, their soul-less faces tell a different story; a hollow, joyless one of imprisonment.
In the face of amazing physical feats like walking down escalators bare foot (without wincing) and supporting oneself on the railing as if on the gymnastics crossbar, the group starts narrating what they actually feel like during practice sometimes and its not pretty:
“My head had felt gone, my body felt like air. My head had felt like ice
cubes in water. My body parts felt like it wanted to separate from each
“My elbow and the rest of my body are at war, and my elbow is winning. My elbow feels disconnected like I dropped a phone call, no longer present. My elbow is non-existent like the rest of the gang.”
As they discuss these feelings with one another, it becomes apparent that this problem has to do with American society in general, that the drive to succeed and win by beating everybody else is ingrained within the culture. Part of the problem is that to be number one, to be better than everyone, is a low probability, and is exclusive by nature.
And since it is impossible for everyone to beat everyone, so what happens to the rest? This is similar to Tracey Moffatt’s Fourth (2001) series of photographs about the disappointment seen in athletes who come in fourth place in big sporting events.
That a scene from the inside of an empty store in a mall is shown for minutes on end with nothing happening except cars passingby outside is suggestive of the kind of economy this town is experiencing. It also suggests that for all the expectations placed on these youngsters to make it in the world of professional sports, the adults themselves don’t have a lot to show for.
In the end, the root of the word to ‘compete’, ‘competere’ in Italian, is revealed to actually mean ‘to strive together’, as 2 of the girls share this thought, communicating with full attention and respect, across different racial lines, imagining a sort of ‘social utopia’.
In another film, Postcards from the Island Desert (2011), a group of French upper-level elementary school students act out what life would be like if they were stranded on a deserted island. A part-role playing game, part-educational experience, the film captures the students re-imagining themselves as they physically build tents and grapple with issues of self-governance, negotiating the need to cook food or make collective decisions.
Located at a ‘project-based’ experimental school in Paris, it seems that the children are already accustomed to activity based education. It helps that they have a healthy imagination which allows them to totally immerse themselves into their roles in this ficticious scenario.
The educational aspect occurs as the children have to create a societal framework from scratch and the need for various institutions that exist in the real world, are questioned. They also have to learn how to handle competition and dole out punishment to those that misbehave.
Based the Lord Of The Flies (1954) novel, the project draws references from a line of anarcho-collectivist educational schools, all of which were ultimately shut down. These were Francesc Ferrer i Guardia’s experimental school La Escuela Moderna established in 1901 in Spain, and its offspring, the Ferrer Modern School in New York, which lasted longer and morphed into a commune before disbanding in the 1950s. The question is why did Husni-Bey do this and what does this have to do with art?
“This idea to escape this normativity is part of the social responsibility that artists should bare.” Adelita Husni-Bey 2015
In the historic records of the Ferrer Modern School, Husni-Bey came upon what she described as this ‘freeing element’ running throughout the community. Here, teachers who have been trained to ‘govern’ children breakout of the mold and replace it with a more communal, open one where the adults realize they can learn as much from kids as kids from the adults.
Ideas to effect social change were also taken from Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ movement which uses theatre plays or performances as a tool for personal liberation and empowerment. By incorporating the audience to become part of the act, Boal’s movement ultimately seeks to effect social change and improve people’s lives.
In Postcards From The Desert Island (2011) we see the children enact what adults do in real life. We also see the fear that competition brings and the temptations that comes with power as they make political, governing decisions, even protesting when there is no consensus, which causes the viewer to reflect on what’s happening in the real world.
In the end, it seems Adelita Husni-Bey adopted the positive aspects of the Ferrer Modern School and not the politically subversive, anarchistic ones. It is interesting that a technique from the Theatre Of The Oppressed is used to ‘liberate’ the minds of these kids and at the same time help adults see why some things are the way they are. By getting these kids to play a game of ‘adults’, they are helping us see how some of us are and how some of us got to this state, which is an inversion of traditional way of relating children, the escape from normativity that she talks about.
But in After The Finish Line (2011) its all about normativity and what happens when it is ubiquitous throughout a place. Here, what’s normal is snuffing the life out of people, as teenagers struggle to achieve what their parents want them to achieve because they themselves couldn’t do it.
Have you ever wondered why American millenials, teenagers say ‘like’ all the time, like, in every sentence? (Which was on display in one part of the film.) I don’t think French kids say ‘comme’ in every sentence. Nor do British kids do that. Even Australian kids don’t do that as much. They are trying to communicate metaphorically, by saying something is like something else, they want to make sure the listener understands what they are getting at, because they don’t have confidence in what they’ve said the first time round.
And so they blabble on, desperately trying to avoid making mistakes, trying to avoid being called ‘loser’ which is a mentality carried into adulthood and which incidently is what this film is about; the need to escape from normativity.